Prep Tennis: Streaking to 100
Win streaks and win totals are arduous. They take time. Litchfield's Laney Huhner knows all about that as a newly-minted 100 match winner in the center of the Dragons' undefeated tennis season.
Huhner recently became the first person to record 100 victories for 12th-year Litchfield head coach Matt Draeger, whose team starts its playoff run Thursday against BBE in the Section 5A opener in Litchfield.
Many of Huhner's wins came as a singles player but this year, Huhner, a junior, was asked to pair with freshman Avery Stilwell at No. 1 doubles and that partnership has been just as successful. The duo's only loss came in the Pine City Power individuals tournament at the start of the year. Since that day in late August, Huhner and Stilwell have overpowered their competition, including a championship at the Wright County Conference tournament Sept. 29.
For Huhner, win No. 100 came Sept. 19 in a match at Orono and the gravity of the win was not lost on her.
"It was super cool and my team helped me out a lot so getting to 100 was a big accomplishment," said Huhner, who has been on the Dragons' varsity squad since seventh grade. "I credit my team, 100 percent. I couldn't have done it without them. Our coaches are working with us all the time and my dad and uncle have helped me in the summers, too."
Fellow junior Shanna Kinny is a key member of Litchfield's team. Kinny is nearing 100 wins of her own, sitting at 94 as of Tuesday. This year the junior has led the charge for the Dragons at No. 1 singles and enters the postseason with only four losses in 2017.
"I didn't know I could get this far," Kinny said. "Starting at seventh grade, I never thought I could get to 100. I used to feel pressure when I was just starting out on varsity but now since I've been playing for a while it's just fun."
Huhner and Kinny entered the varsity rotation at the same time and often split time at No. 4 singles. As the wins have accumulated, each has found their own spot on the roster, but arguably their best moment on a tennis court came as a unit. In 2015, Huhner and Kinny joined together for a Class A state tournament appearance. They dropped the first match of the tournament to Breck's Anna Zumwinkle and Kendall Kozikowski who went on to take second place, but bounced back to win three consolation matches to take fifth place.
That experience wasn't replicated in 2016 after losing to teammates Vaida Behnke and Avery Stilwell in the Section 5A individuals tournament.
"I was really happy for them but it was really hard because I spent a ton of time that summer practicing so I never want that to happen again," said Kinny, who spends most of the offseason training with Stilwell.
Huhner and Kinny acknowledge a drive to get back to state individually but they both say their focus is on making the big dance as a team. Draeger certainly has his team in line for the team's first trip to the tournament since 2007. Litchfield is undefeated and many of those victories have come via a 7-0 or 6-1 scoreline.
"I don't know if you ever expect to dominant," Draeger said. "You expect to be competitive, you expect to be in every match. Our kids have that killer instinct. It doesn't matter if the team we're playing is 1-14 or 14-1, we're coming out with the same mentality and the same effort and same focus. When you do that you're going to dominante some of the lesser teams, that's the way it works. But it's a credit to them to come out with that mentality every time. Most kids don't do that."
Draeger also says there's a selflessness with this team that has been an important factor in Litchfield's success. When Elise Bierbaum transferred to Litchfield following a stint at Willmar, Huhner and Stilwell joined up as a doubles pair, allowing Bierbaum to take over No. 2 singles.
"I knew I'd move Laney once Elise came and took another singles spot," Draeger said. "Laney is a really good doubles player, she always has been. It's just that the team needed her in singles. With Elise coming in, clearly the doubles is what our team needed. Every one of them, it's all about what we need as a team. I'll move people around and nobody bats an eye, nobody questions it ... There's no eagles right now, everyone is on the same path and when you have that you have something kind of special. There's no individual agendas. That comes from our seniors and our leaders and our captains. That works throughout the whole program. "
Ultimately that translates to depth throughout the singles and doubles lineup. WIth Huhner and Stilwell often handling No. 1 doubles it allows Behnke and Neriah Lara to take care of business at No. 2 doubles. Natalie Nelson and Alanis Thesenvitz, meanwhile, are stalwarts at Nos. 3 and 4 singles as two of the three seniors on the team.